The International Year of Small Island Developing States (SIDS) 2014 is upon us and it is a time to celebrate the resilience and cultural heritage of small island States. These regions of the world are rich in biological diversity and home to many endemic species. They are also highly vulnerable to natural disasters and climate change. One example is the Marovo Lagoon community who is working with UNESCO to preserve local language and knowledge of the surrounding ecosystem.
Marovo Lagoon is an area of coral reefs and small islands that is part of the Solomon Islands, a Melanesian country in the south Pacific. The Marovo people make their living through fishing and small scale agriculture, although today, logging and tourism are also growing activities. Nature is not preceived by the Marovo people as a separate entity, rather their lives are interwoven with the natural environment and their way of live is derived from that connection. Their 'lifestyle' (kino) is a continuous engagement of men, women, and children in all the 'good things of land and sea'. Today, the Marovo population is estimated at 12,000 people.
Indigenous languages around the world are experiencing erosion, often due to formal education systems which educate in mainstream languages. The loss of indigenous language results in a loss of cultural identity, the degradation of knowledge passed down from previous generations, and the weakening of customary management systems. As they say in Marovo: "Those who cannot name the good things of sea and land, cannot find them, and therefore cannot eat or otherwise benefit from them, nor will they know how to look after them well".
Through its programme on Local and Indigenous Knowledge Systems (LINKS), UNESCO is working with indigenous communities and Ministries of Education to create safeguards for education and build sustainable futures for indigenous people and their livelihood. Based upon the extensive knowledge of the bio-physical environment possessed by the Marovo Lagoon people, a multilingual Environmental Encyclopedia and online wiki of the Marovo Lagoon in the Solomon Islands was developed in collaboration with Bergen University, Norway. This project is a collaborative research initiative spearheaded by UNESCO that united indigenous peoples with natural and social scientists.
Containing more than 1,200 terms and definitions in the Marovo language, the encyclopdia ‘Reef and Rainforest: An Environmental Encyclopedia of Marovo Lagoon’ follows an entirely Marovo cultural logic. It is based entirely upon local knowledge of the environment, compiles the names and associated stories for some 350 fishes, 450 plants, 100 shells, 80 birds, 80 distinct topographical features of coral reef, sea and coast - and more. The encyclopedia also depicts the Marovo way of life and their interactions with nature, including their use, management, and their role as keepers of natural resources. The encyclopedia was specifically developed for the use of the Marovo people, and many wise elders of the villages and other local experts on reef and rainforest have provided, checked, verified and expanded the names and stories contained in this book.
Available in English and in Marovo, the online wiki version of the encyclopedia contains lesson plans to highlight the connections between local knowledge and science education. The success of this initiative is that the online wiki is not a static project, but a digital resource that can be updated and added to over time. Teachers and students in remote rural Marovo are accessing, revising and upgrading the wiki - reinforcing the transmission of traditional knowledge and language within villages. The project fosters the communication and development of indigenous environmental knowledge through a dialogue across generations.
This project is a practical demonstration of the role of vernacular languages in formal education. While the Encyclopedia is anchored in the Marovo language (as well as two other languages spoken in the wider Marovo Lagoon area, Hoava and Vangunu), the book and the experiences from this pilot exercise are now ready for expansion of the general model into several other major language areas of Western Province. The project uses the PACRICs initiative and the One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) with links to the Wikieducator community as a part of its ICT platform.
Promoting the Marovo language promotes Marovo knowledge and helps build a more sustainable future for these communities. This project is one example of UNESCO’s commitment to building resilient communities in SIDS. It highlights the challenges facing these regions and their intrinsic value to the international community. UNESCO initiatives, like the Marovo Environmental Encyclopedia and online wiki, are vital for the sustainable development of small island States – we cannot afford further degradation of indigenous knowledge and wisdom.
Hviding, Edvard, 2005, Reef and Rainforest: an Environmental Encyclopedia of Marovo Lagoon, Solomon Islands / Kiladi oro vivineidi ria tingitonga pa idere oro pa goana pa Marovo. Knowledges of Nature 1, UNESCO: Paris, 252 pp.